SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Don Simpson | January 27, 2014
Director: David Zellner
Writers: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Randy Baranczyk, John Edel, Kai Mariah, Karen Voels
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an “office lady” for a Japanese businessman who seems to only care about the way she prepares his tea. Skulking around, always gazing downward, Kumiko whiles away her time daydreaming about treasure hunting. Despite her gainful employment, Kumiko’s financial situation in Tokyo is quite grim; and, at 29-years-old, Kumiko’s hopes for marriage are rapidly diminishing. Who can blame her for believing that her destiny is to discover a buried fortune?
After watching an old VHS tape of Fargo, which she unearths during a treasure hunt, Kumiko sets off to North Dakota by way of Minnesota in search of the suitcase full of ransom money that Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buried alongside a snowy, nondescript road towards the end of the film. While most of us understand that Fargo is fictional, Kumiko takes the opening text of the film — “this is a true story” — to heart. She carefully analyzes a still frame of the film, measuring the distance between fenceposts, then knitting a treasure map to direct her to the precise location of the suitcase — all of which would seem truly absurd to a rational human being, since there are no defining elements of the road and the seemingly endless fence line does not serve as such an accurate measuring device as Kumiko assumes.
Kumiko arrives in Minnesota totally ill-equipped for the brutal Midwestern winter, wearing a red hooded sweatshirt like Red Riding Hood. Eventually, Kumiko transforms a colorful quilt into a kimono and sets off on a solitary quest across the frozen Minnesotan tundra like a Japanese warrior in a grim fairytale. Other than a stolen credit card, Kumiko has no money. Oh, and she barely speaks a lick of English. Luckily for Kumiko, she encounters a few kind souls in Minnesota who seem sincerely concerned about her wellbeing.
Unlike Fargo, this tale is actually based on a true story, so you may already know Kumiko’s fate; but told from Kumiko’s somewhat warped perspective, hope is never quite lost. Kumiko’s confidence is unwavering, as she is perpetually driven to find the treasure. The creators of this fantastical adventure, the Zellner Brothers, seem to really appreciate Kumiko’s perseverance; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter presents her like a heroine from a fairytale. The Zellner Brothers give Kumiko plenty of motivation for her actions, fully immersing the audience into her cramped, solitary loneliness in Japan. Mostly silent, there is an inner rage that boils within Kumiko’s eyes. She is clearly unhappy with the unfulfilling life that she is trapped living in Japan. Quickly becoming too old to continue working as an office lady, Kumiko’s only foreseeable option is to move back in with her mother. The stress and depression of her domestic and economic situation is what propels her to embark upon this clearly delusional journey.
Masterfully lensed by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love, Eden), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter functions quite purposefully as two distinct halves, both of which are closely tied to Japanese cinematic history. While Kumiko is in Japan, Porter captures the suffocating claustrophobia and urban grittiness of modern Tokyo; once Kumiko arrives in Minnesota, Porter transforms the snow-covered expanses into a surreal staging ground for the epic journey. The artfulness of Porter’s cinematography, the eerily pitch-perfect score by The Octopus Project and Rinko Kikuchi’s astoundingly stoic performance all contribute to the remarkable maturity of this Zellner Brothers endeavor. By far their most accomplished and coherent film (a statement intended by no means to discredit their previous work), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seems as if it was made by a Japanese master rather than two brothers from Austin, Texas with a penchant for absurdity.